Personalize your ketubah without breaking the law

For many brides and grooms, the ketubah signing that precedes the veiled walk down the aisle has a bit of mystery about it. They may not be sure exactly what the ancient Aramaic text says, but the signing ceremony sets just the right air of solemnity as a prelude to the veiled walk down the aisle.

Some couples who read the text carefully encounter a document that seems at least mildly chauvinist, with the husband taking an active role and the wife only consenting to become his wife. Although some couples decide to write their own egalitarian ketubah and forego the traditional document, many decide to also have a standard ketubah.

Donna Frieze, a convert to Judaism, had an additional kosher ketubah to ensure the legality of her marriage.

“Later in life,” she said, “we don’t know if we or our children would want to go to Israel and if there would be any question about our marriage.”

Despite concerns by feminists with the male-oriented language of the ketubah, the document originally developed as an insurance policy to protect the bride if the marriage ends — either through divorce or death of the husband.

The most fundamental role of the ketubah, said Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University, is to elucidate the responsibilities and obligations a husband accepts in a marriage. According to Maurice Lamm’s the “Jewish Way in Love and Marriage,” the ketubah specifies that the husband is setting aside 200 silver zuzim, called a mohar, that will be paid to the bride in the event of his death or a divorce.

The husband also agrees in the ketubah to support his wife with food, clothing and “other necessary benefits,” which the Talmud defines as satisfactory conjugal relations.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi who was ordained in 2003, maintained that a ketubah can express greater mutuality and still be in consonance with Jewish law. Using a document created by Rabbi Gordon Tucker as a basis for her ketubah, Jacobs and her husband Guy Austrian expressed mutual responsibility for each other in their ketubah: “The groom and bride also agreed of their own free will to work for one another, to honor, support, and nurture one another, to live together as a family, and to create their home in love, companionship, peace, and friendship as befits the sons and daughters of Israel.”

The traditional ketubah also lists two additional transfers of property. One is the bride’s dowry, or nedunya, of silver, gold, valuables, clothing and household furnishings, which the groom accepts in the sum of 100 zuzim. The second is an additional 100 zuzim, called tosefet ketubah, that the groom provides as a wedding gift to the bride. In the Sephardic world, the tosefet ketubah is often a negotiated sum that is specified in the currency of the land.

The groom must secure these monetary obligations with a lien on his property: “I take upon myself and my heirs after me,” reads the ketubah, “the surety of this ketubah, of the dowry, and of the additional sum, so that all this shall be paid from the best part of my property, real and personal, that I now possess or may hereafter acquire.”

In the notes to Tucker’s ketubah, which Jacobs described as “the bare minimum of what you need halachically,” he claims that the only obligatory elements of the ketubah are the mohar and the lien it engenders. Concerning these monetary payments, added Jacobs, “they are part of a ketubah, but it is not necessary to specify how much.”

Tucker included language to allude to both the mohar and the lien on property: “The groom and the bride also accepted full legal responsibility for the obligations specified here, as well as for the various property entering the marriage from their respective homes and families, and agreed that the obligations of this ketubah may be satisfied even from movable property.”

The standard ketubah, despite its formulaic nature, is required for every Orthodox marriage. Because the standard ketubah does not require a husband to grant his wife a religious divorce and a get, Blau supported the idea of a bride and groom signing, in addition to the ketubah, a separate prenuptial agreement — also to protect the bride in case of a divorce.

Although the Orthodox community is committed to the existing ketubah document, whose language comes from the Mishnah, Blau said he has no problem with a bride and a groom making additional agreements and commitments, as long as they do not controvert Jewish law.

When Rabbi Jacobs and her husband got married, they did not want to have two ketubbot, but rather one ketubah that satisfied both Jewish law and their own values. “We wanted something that to our standards was halakhically acceptable,” she explained, but also egalitarian.

Using Tucker’s ketubah and adding to it three additional paragraphs of a more personal nature enabled Jacobs and her husband to have a single ketubah, something that is often not true for couples Jacobs has married. If they have written their own ketubah, but not in a way that satisfies Jewish law, she requires them to have an additional kosher ketubah — even if it is a computer printout that will go in a safe deposit box after the ceremony.

The hip Jewish museum by the Bay, Nagler new JFS chief

The Hip Jewish Museum by the Bay

The new Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is a hip amalgam of modern art. Daniel Liebeskind’s peculiar architectural dazzle looks like a giant Rubik’s Cube in metallic steel, standing on its tip beneath the city’s downtown skyscrapers. Beside it is the Jessie Street Power Substation, a brick and terra cotta structure in the classical revival style, a landmark building first erected in 1881 that Liebeskind adapted to the project.

The juxtaposition of the historic with the cutting-edge is an odd sight, but it does represent a spectrum of Jewish experience as a kind of past-future metaphor. The architecture — and the art — are a way of linking tradition with what is current. But once you enter the museum’s whitewashed asymmetrical orbit, the image of Judaism projected feels — well, not very Jewish.

Not that the current exhibitions aren’t provocative, interactive or innovative. Inside the new building is “John Zorn Presents the Alef-Bet Sound Project,” where various musicians and composers have written music based on the kabbalistic meaning of Hebrew letters. The result plays to great atmospheric effect inside the angular room with 36 diamond-shaped skylights that positively glow.

“In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis” is the most comprehensive exhibit, featuring a combination of historical art (Chagall, Rodin, etc.) and newly commissioned installations, where artists meditated on the modern relevance of the Genesis story. These creations are edgy, experiential and even abstruse.

Alan Berliner’s experimental film plays across separate horizontal screens that randomly flash words from Genesis in English. At the touch of a button, the word roll stops and somehow always forms a perfect (and poetic) sentence. If “God” comes up, thunder strikes and a montage of dramatic images from Jewish history play in montage (think: Holocaust).

While the offerings are stimulating and sometimes strange (check out Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “In the Beginning There Was the End, in the End There Was the Beginning,” about half-human, half-plant creatures attacked by jealous half-siblings who are then swallowed by the earth and become “Vegans”) the Jewish content is sparse.

Where is Jewish history? No destruction of the Temple? No Babylonian exile? Not even Ellis Island? No, there’s only William Steig, The New Yorker cartoonist who created “Shrek.” And don’t expect a Zionist ode to Israel. In this museum’s version of Judaism, Israel might as well not exist. And as far as any instructive on Jewish religious observance — that’s pretty much limited to some audible Torah chanting as you roam around and a couple of Torah books sitting on a table for your reading pleasure (that is, if you’re fluent in Hebrew).

Here, the closest you’ll get to Shabbat is a pair of candlesticks in the museum gift shop.

Jeff Nagler Assumes JFS Presidency

Jeff Nagler is bringing his movie business mojo to Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). The Warner Bros. Studios vice president was recently installed as JFS’s new president, an office that will surely benefit from Nagler’s experience managing operations of both Warner Bros. television and features departments.

A graduate of UCLA Law, Nagler has a history of nonprofit work both in the arts and public policy. Along with Nagler, nine new board members were installed at the June 16 event at JFS headquarters; they include Colette Ament, Ira Cohen, Vicki Gold, Bryan Moeller, Steven Paul, Marvin Perer, Lisa Ribner, Toni M. Schulman and Meridith Weiss.

Nessah Celebration for Israel Has ‘Soul’

(From left) Bruce Hakimi, Consul General of Azerbaijan Elin Suleymanov, Joe Shooshani, Beverly Hills City Councilmember Jimmy Delshad, fashion designer Bijan. Photo by Karmel Melamed

With modern dance performances and live Israeli music, as well as shofars blasting and lights flashing, nearly 700 local Iranian Jewish members of Nessah Synagogue celebrated Israel’s 60th anniversary through their sponsored gala concert, “One People, One Soul,” on July 1 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. In addition to video presentations interspersed with the live performances, the event featured popular Israeli singer David D’Or, who performed Jewish prayers, Israeli folk songs and even an Italian operatic ballad.

Notable guests at the concert included Beverly Hills City Councilman Jimmy Delshad, DWP General Manager H. David Nahai, talk radio host Dennis Prager, Iranian fashion designer Bijan and Azerbaijan Consul General Elin Suleymanov.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

VIDEO: Architecture as experience – Daniel Libeskind

Celebrated architect Daniel Libeskind discusses his views of architecture as a spiritual and aesthetic experience, citing the examples of two sites he designed: the rebuilding of New York City’s World Trade Center, and San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.



Theater: Troy vs. ‘Tsuris’

“How should I prepare?” asks playwright Mark Troy after agreeing to an interview the following morning about his new play, “Tsuris,” opening Friday, Dec. 22, at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake. “Should I wear a blue tuxedo?”
Although he is not a standup comedian and says he has a “pathological fear of being in front of an audience,” Mark Troy is always “on.”

When asked whether he is Jewish, Troy responds, “You will be needing proof of that?”

Actually, there is no need for such proof from Troy, whose last name may conjure images of Hector fighting Achilles, but whose latest play is about battles of a more contemporary nature — among Jewish spouses, parents and their children in Florida.

Troy has written many plays about Jews, including “Join the Club,” which just played at a Malibu festival and revolved around the decision of a 35-year-old man to get a circumcision. Another play, “Getting to Bupkus,” focuses on a 12-year-old Jewish boy who runs away the night before his bar mitzvah and comes back 12 years later.

Their storylines may remind one of TV shows and films from the past, the first calling to mind the “Sex and the City” episode in which one of Charlotte’s dates decides to test out his newly circumcised penis on multiple partners, and the second bringing back memories of “The Bar Mitzvah Boy,” the film that every 12-year-old Jewish boy has seen.

Troy’s new play, “Tsuris,” also has a familiarity to it, but that doesn’t mean that his dialogue lacks freshness. Troy has his characters rattle off humorous lines like, “Florida is like dog years; you times everything by seven.”

Troy is not suggesting that everyone living in Florida is preternaturally ancient, but rather that “something slows you down” and you end up replicating your grandmother’s habits — going to K-mart, going to the pool, then another pool and, most of all, eating dinner at 4 p.m. at Bagel Palace or Bagel Nosh or Bagel Land.

At these bagel emporia, elders may even utter adages such as this parody of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man speech: “They say every man should have three wives. When he’s in his 20s … there’s the lustful wife. Then in midlife, he has the motherly wife. Then in his final golden years…the companion wife…. Thank God I’ve found in Irma Messersmidt the lustful whore I’ve been missing.”

“Tsuris” plays Dec. 22 through Feb. 3 at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake.

7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, June 3

Left-leaning readers will appreciate tonight’s show featuring political commentary. “Laughing Liberally” is in town for just one night, after a successful February debut at New York City’s Town Hall. Attend to hear comedians/commentators Will Durst, Jim David, Marc Maron, Dean Obeidallah, Rick Overton and Katie Halper skewer Bush and roast the White House.

8:30 p.m. $25-$43. Wadsworth Theatre (on the VA grounds), Building 226, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood. (213) 365-3500. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Sunday, June 4

The South Robertson Neighborhoods Council puts on its annual block party “It’s a SoRo World” this weekend.
The free festival will include vendor and food booths representing area businesses, including Nathan’s kosher hot dogs, a block-long kids fun zone and an environmental pavilion.

11 a.m.-4 p.m. South Robertson Boulevard, between Beverlywood Street and Cattaraugus Avenue. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Monday, June 5

“Reel Talk With Stephen Farber,” the preview film screening and conversation series hosted by Movieline’s film critic, returns for another 10-evening series, beginning tonight. Head to the Wadsworth Theatre for a screening of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” the documentary by Chris Paine recently shown at Sundance and Tribeca film fests. Farber will converse with Paine and exec producer Dean Devlin following the movie.

7 p.m. Mondays, June 5-Aug. 14. $20 (individual screenings), $150 (series). Wadsworth Theatre (on the VA grounds), Building 226, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood. (213) 365-3500. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, June 6

Writers Bloc’s concept of featuring one renowned author interviewing another has made for unique literary evenings, offering something more than the usual book reading and signing. This evening, their duo will be modern master John Updike, interviewed by L.A.-centric satirical writer Bruce Wagner.

$20. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 335-0917. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>


Wednesday, June 7

Don’t call the late Claire Falkenstein’s pieces “sculpture.” She preferred “structures,” OK? The acclaimed artist’s works included gates designed for Peggy Guggenheim’s estate in Venice, Italy, in 1961,and many of her large-scale pieces can still be viewed in touring our fair city. Easier still, Louis Stern Fine Arts presents one in a series of exhibitions displaying works from Falkenstein’s estate. “Claire Falkenstein: Structure and Flow, Works from 1950-1980” is on view through Aug. 26.

Free. 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. (310) 276-0147. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, June 8

They call it California’s Shangri-La; classical music lovers call it home this weekend. It’s Ojai Valley, and today through Sunday, it presents the annual Ojai Music Festival, now in its 60th year. Hear the music of contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov performed by various vocalists and musicians over the course of the four days, attend lectures and take in the beauty of the lush surroundings.

June 8-11. Single tickets on sale. (805) 646-2094.  

Friday, June 9

The Contemporary Crafts Market offers decorative, functional and wearable art at all price points this weekend at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. More than 250 artisans will show their stuff — including glassware, jewelry, ceramics, watercolors, wood furniture and plenty more.

10 a.m.-6 p.m. (June 9-11). Free (children 12 and under), $6 (adults). 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 285-3655. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Treasury Mainstreams Dramatic Plights

Published plays — especially those in anthologies — tend to be dismissed by the casual browser as specialty items, of interest only to students of theater history or to actors in search of audition material. Ellen Schiff and Michael Posnick clearly had something else in mind when they compiled their lively new collection, “Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays.” Mainstream readers are encouraged to visit the drama bookshelf to locate this intelligent, probing collection filled with vivid examples of how dramatic literature can humanize moral and social dilemmas by embodying them in the personal irritations and intimacies of daily life.

Schiff and Posnick have chosen well, covering territory as diverse as the Argentine white slave trade, the plight of the Refuseniks in the Soviet Union, and the longstanding friendship between Marc Chagall and Yiddish theater legend Solomon Mikhoels. While all the pieces are well-crafted and insightful, some are so heavily dependent on choreography and stage effects that they fall a bit flat on the page. Other entries read like short stories, as absorbing in book form as they likely are in performance. Without critiquing all nine of the pieces, suffice to say that the more verbal and less visually driven pieces tend to be the most readable.

Not surprisingly, two of the standouts are by Jeffrey Sweet and Donald Margulies, who are familiar to American audiences from their Broadway and off-Broadway successes. Sweet’s “The Action Against Sol Schumann” examines one of the perpetually nagging questions of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

The time is 1985, and outspoken Aaron Schumann flies to Bitburg, Germany, to protest Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery full of German soldiers. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, Aaron cannot countenance the president’s portrayal of Germans as victims. Aaron’s moral absolutes are tested, however, when another survivor identifies his father, Sol, as a former kapo. Desperate to put together a defense, Aaron and his brother, Michael, search far and wide. If they can find an eyewitness, they may be able to substantiate their claim that their papa had little choice and even used his position to help other Jews. Finally the two brothers locate an elderly survivor who remembers Sol, but not in the way they’d hoped. Sweet’s dialogue brilliantly mingles the universal and the painfully personal, and the plot moves along with the brisk pace of a good mystery. Unfortunately, the ending feels far too convenient: Aaron, an inner-city schoolteacher, is killed when he tries to break up a knife fight. Thus Sweet lets his protagonist, and the audience, off the hook too easily. A more fitting resolution would have shown Aaron struggling to maintain his sanity as he reconciles the cherished memory of a loving father with the terrifying image of a willing collaborator in his own people’s destruction.

A different kind of conundrum animates Margulies’s “God of Vengeance.” Although the play is adapted from a work by Sholem Asch, Margulies’s clash of dialects vibrates with the influences of Elmer Rice and Clifford Odets. In the tenements of New York City’ s Lower East Side, the 1920s roar with a decidedly Yiddish inflection. Jack Chapman, aka Yankel Tshaptshovitsh, runs a prosperous bordello. One flight up, he tries to maintain a kosher home and to keep his beloved daughter, Rivkele, pure and innocent. When he buys a Torah scroll for Rivkele’s dowry, he finds himself confronting a God whose dictates he has ignored all these years. Alternately frightening and hilarious, his ferocious outbursts are balanced by lyrical scenes of same-sex intimacy. At 17, Rivkele can no longer be tied down. Defying her father’s admonitions, she sneaks downstairs to the brothel. Here, Manke, a prostitute suffering from a different kind of loneliness, offers Rivkele the full embrace she cannot find anywhere else.

Lesser known but equally talented, Marilyn Clayton Felt brings a Shavian intensity to her penetrating study of the Middle East peace struggle. Inspired by true events, “Asher’s Command” concerns a friendship between Arab car mechanic Samir and young Israeli draftee Asher. When Asher’s car breaks down in the territories, Samir is happy to help and shows no animosity toward the young soldier. The problem turns out to be a potato jammed into the tailpipe; hardly an act of ruthless terrorism, but certainly an omen of what’s to come. The friendship continues through the years, but is put to the test in the 1980s when Asher becomes commander of occupation forces. Although he truly believes he can make a difference from within, he receives little support from either side. Arabs suspect trickery behind the peaceful overtures, and Jewish hardliners see him as a traitor to his nation. Tensions erupt when a group of Israeli youths enjoy an outing in Nablus in defiance of regulations. Stones are thrown, shots are fired and Samir’s auto shop becomes an unintended battleground. As Asher is called on to enforce the law, he ends up on the opposite side of his longtime friend. Although a melodramatic subplot proves somewhat distracting, Felt’s well-crafted allegory provides a mature and unflinching portrayal of Israel’s continuing internal and external conflicts.

As for the more experimental pieces, the most affecting is Corey Fischer’s “See Under: Love,” a play within a play within a play adapted from a Hebrew novel by David Grossman. In America, young Neuman neglects his wife and son while speaking to the ghost of his grandfather, Herr Wasserman. Once a popular Polish author, Wasserman is now interned in a concentration camp. Here he’s commanded to be S.S. officer Kurt Neigel’s personal Sheherazade. Each night he invents a new chapter of a surreal adventure story, which Neigel transcribes into letters to his wife. The Nazi is having trouble at home, as Frau Neigel no longer wishes to be touched by hands that stink of death. As the story deepens, Neigel’s conscience slowly awakens. When he truly encounters the horror of his actions he can no longer function, and takes his own life. Fischer skates on thin ice here, dangerously close to a relativistic worldview in which we’re all victims. But by the end of “See Under: Love,” Neigel’s crisis becomes less a moral acquittal than an existential song of lament. Evil, Fischer seems to say, consumes everything in its path, including what little claim to humanity its perpetrators may hope to make.

Unfortunately, only one of the nine plays — Jennifer Maisel’s touching “The Last Seder” — can really be called “contemporary.” Re-examining the past is a worthy task for any dramatist, but the inclusion of a few works that take place in today’s world (“Brooklyn Boy,” “Modern Orthodox,” “Jewtopia”) would have made this collection feel less like a history book and more like the up-to-date dispatch its name suggests.

Article courtesy of The Forward.

Ethan Kanfer is a playwright and theater critic living in New York.



When they first started dancing together, Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras used to lock themselves in a studio for somewhere between five and seven hours a day. Together, they tried to make their bodies react in “authentic ways,” irrespective of how high they could jump, how fast they could turn or any other techniques their dance training had already taught them.

“Right from the start, there was a lot of play, a large element of risk and pushing of boundaries,” Gagnon recalls. “We’ve always supported that in each other.”

Thirteen years after founding their Vancouver-based company, The Holy Body Tattoo, Gagnon, now 42, and Gingras, 39, have developed what they call their most ambitious work to date. An ode to urban angst and survival, “Monumental” will receive its American premiere at Royce Hall in April and has a good chance of resonating with big-city dwellers, be they from Los Angeles, New York or Tel Aviv.

Hailed as a vibrant force in the Canadian contemporary dance scene, The Holy Body Tattoo has been internationally acclaimed for multimedia performances that draw upon intense physicality. Reviews of the company’s works invariably use words like “explosive,” “relentless” and “raw” and the choreographers agree they tend to create dances “where you’ll be provoked, you’ll either be in or out,” Gagnon says. “You’re not just going to sit there and be entertained.”

Some interesting similarities exist between The Holy Body Tattoo and the Israeli dance company Vertigo. Both companies have been lauded for their use of visual props and other multimedia devices, in addition to physically demanding movement, as a means of excavating the depths of human relationships. Both have been com-

pared to the renowned German boundary-stretching

choreographer Pina Bausch, and both were founded by male-female duos intent on developing their own personal kinetic language.

Gagnon, in fact, has been mistaken for an Israeli on numerous occasions, largely because he chooses to use only the last part of his full name: Joseph Daniel Marcel Noam.

“I also have a lot of friends who are Israeli,” he says. “Maybe there’s some sort of affinity. But I’m definitely French Canadian.”

Created for nine dancers, “Monumental” mines the physical and emotional anxieties inherent in urban culture. Inspired by the 1980 “Men in the Cities” series of lithographs by artist Robert Longo, in which young people in cocktail dress are shown flinging their bodies, as if caught in the midst of writhing motion, Gagnon and Gingras’ dance ultimately reflects the pair’s signature style of extreme, arduous movement.

“There’s a great level of noise and stimulation in our urban environment, which places a great stress on our nervous system,” Gingras says. “We were also interested in the pressure to conform and how certain individuals fall through the cracks.”

Featuring text by artist Jenny Holzer, video montages by L.A.-based cinematographer William Morrison and electronic music by Roger Tellier-Craig, the dance begins as a series of tableaus, where the nine performers stand on individual blocks, each one isolated. Gradually, the dancers start mingling and a variety of interactions ensue, ranging from protective to overtly hostile.

“We have ideas about society that we put on pedestals and we make monuments about these ideals,” Gingras observes. “But to be human is to be flawed, and down we come, our arrogance and our hubris being our doom.”

Gagnon and Gingras involved the dancers in the choreographic process by assigning them “tasks,” Gingras explains. “We sent them out into the city where they had to observe people’s tics and obsessive gestures in addition to just watching people do basic, larger actions like walking down the street. We want to show that moving through a city is monumental, but so is the accumulation of the minutest of gestures.”

In addition to her role as co-choreographer, Gingras also collaborated with Morrison on the visual backdrops, which include scenes from the L.A. freeways.

“When I’m on the 110 freeway, and I pass that maze of interchanges, I always find it beautiful and horrifying,” she says. “All these bodies disconnected from each other, commuting back and forth.

“I’m excited about ‘Monumental’ being performed in L.A.,” she adds, “because to me, the isolation you feel in L.A. is special … the city is so vast and can make you feel like an ant.”

Raised in Argentina and Scotland, Gingras received a scholarship in 1987 to study with a Vancouver-based dance company called Edam. There, she met Gagnon, who grew up in Montreal and received a visual arts degree before pursuing his dance studies.

“Where I grew up, you didn’t dance if you were a guy,” he says. “But I always loved to dance.”

At Edam, Gingras and Gagnon formed “an instant clique. We were known as the terrible twins,” Gingras recalls. “We shared the same sense of humor and mischief. We also share a certain manic drive, which of course is reflected in our work.”

When asked about his attraction to extreme, “hyper-speedy” movement, Gagnon likens himself to a boxer.

“Why does a boxer box? Because he has a desire,” he says. “I don’t want to look at what drives me too closely. That would be a waste of time. All I know is that I wanted to create a physical language for how I felt, and that as hard as it’s been sometimes physically and mentally, the rewards for this work are incredible … it’s like you survived a crash.”

“Monumental” will be performed April 21-22, 8 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA. Tickets range from $15 to $42. For Information, call (310) 825-2101 or visit


Is the ‘Wicked Man’ Just Misunderstood?

Last month I took my family to see the Broadway musical, “Wicked,” a recasting of the “Wizard of Oz,” where all the supposedly good people turn out to be self-centered and the Wicked Witch is revealed to be a sensitive iconoclast battling a malicious smear campaign. “Fractured Fairy Tales” haven’t been this popular since the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show. Hollywood has most recently brought us the “Shrek” series, various modern remakes of Cinderella, and now, “Hoodwinked,” a takeoff on Little Red Riding Hood, in which extreme snowboarder Granny and thoroughly modern Red team up with the wolf, who turns out to be an undercover reporter and all-round good guy.

Such moral ambiguity has a home in Judaism, which revels in the hidden complexities of life. The Bible paints few of our heroes in bold, simplistic strokes.

Arguably, Judaism’s most towering figures, Moses and David, are among the most flawed. There are no “happily ever afters” to be found. No one is purely good, nor is anyone entirely evil.

Except for one. Oz had the Wicked Witch, and we have our Wicked, Wicked Man: Haman. Jews are expected to have sympathy for just about every enemy, with the exception of Haman.

Admit it. Don’t you feel just a little uncomfortable on Purim night, beating the tar out of Haman, shouting him down, cheering ecstatically at his demise? Doesn’t it bother you just a little bit that the same tradition that encourages us to spill drops of wine at the seder in memory of suffering Egyptian slave drivers also encourages us to drink ourselves silly while hanging Haman and drowning out the very mention of his name?

With Haman being painted with cartoonish evil clarity, however, the Talmud throws us another zinger, calling upon us to imbibe on Purim not to ignite more anger, but to create a very “wicked”-like confusion, according to one interpretation. We are to drink until we cannot tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordechai.” This custom seems to undercut the Bible’s assertion that Haman, simply by virtue of his Amalekite roots, as well as his own deeds, is the pure embodiment of evil. It introduces the possibility of moral ambiguity, or worse, a moral equivalence between Haman’s intentions and those of his accusers.

If the Book of Esther were to be rewritten the way “Wicked” recasts Oz, it would make for a great Purim shpiel. Essentially, the inverse story of Haman would begin at birth, where his parents reject him. As a child, the neighborhood bullies beat him up, poking fun at his three-cornered hat given to him by Mordechai, the Big Man on Campus, as a prank.

“Tri-corner is this year’s kaffiyeh,” Mordechai tells him.

Haman then wallows in self-pity with a show-stopping number titled, “My Life Is Bad Noose.”

He hopes against hope that some day maybe he will make it so big “that they’ll name a pastry after me.”

Finally, he is granted an audience with the king, but he is forced to wait outside for hours on end.

“Why does the king leave me hanging?” Haman laments.

While he is waiting, he overhears Mordechai plotting against the king. The plan is to place Esther on the throne and force all the royal subjects to become life members of Hadassah. Mordy also plots to create a diversionary smoke screen by accusing Haman of scheming to annihilate the Jews. The plan works to perfection and the “wicked” Haman is hanged. But it turns out that Haman gets wind of the plot, substitutes a scarecrow effigy at the last minute and while the scarecrow swings, Haman escapes to Hollywood to produce morally ambiguous movies for Steven Spielberg.

Jewish tradition teaches us that no human being is either totally evil or completely good. Spielberg has been maligned for his recent film, “Munich,” because he meddled in the moral complexities of our contemporary Purim saga involving Israeli good guys and terrorism’s evildoers. With hundreds of specialized cable channels and millions of Internet sites to choose from, people focus on only one side of any story. Spielberg’s attempt to break through the caricatures is refreshing and commendable in this polarized world, as long as the terrorism itself is not minimized or justified.

Am I being too forgiving of Judaism’s Wicked Wicked Man? Not at all. I’ll be out there on Purim night raising a ruckus like everyone else. But I’ll do so with the understanding that Book of Esther is only part of a long and complex story whose end has yet to be written.

Joshua Hammerman is rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and author of “ Seeking God in Cyberspace.” He can be reached at


Illuminating Tales of Modern Maccabees

In Myra Goldberg’s short story, “Who Can Retell,” reprinted in the National Public Radio anthology, “Hanukkah Lights, Stories of the Season” (Melcher Media, 2005), a young girl is concerned that her school’s holiday glee club is singling out all the Jewish students to sing Chanukah songs.

The story, about the trauma of having an identity that cannot assimilate completely into the dominant culture, perhaps embodies the American Chanukah experience, which more than any other holiday in the calendar, reminds Jews that they are different.

Although it is not a biblical holiday, unlike say, Passover, Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, Chanukah has managed to carve its own place in the American cultural pantheon. It is the one holiday in the Jewish calendar that even the most assimilated Jews tend to acknowledge. It is also a holiday that the more affiliated Jews commemorate as a ritual-laden eight days, replete with olive oil lights, prayers, latkes, and discussions and songs of a tiny army hell-bent on defending their God’s and nation’s holiness.

In “Hanukkah Lights,” the stories not only exemplify the dichotomous nature of the holiday for American Jews, but also the way in which Chanukah has, to some degree, become synonymous with so many facets of their Jewish identity.

The book was borne out of the popular NPR broadcast of the same name, an hour-long show of Chanukah stories read aloud, created in 1990 by Susan Stamberg and Murray Horowitz. Initially, the stories read on the program had been previously published. But as the program became more popular, the producers started commissioning their own choice of writers.

“Hanukkah Lights” has broadcast 40 original stories, of which 12 are included in this anthology, with an additional four on the accompanying CD featuring original NPR readings by Stamberg and Horowitz. Printed on high-quality paper, the book has beautiful full-color, collage-like illustrations by Sandra Dionisi.

The stories include modern takes on the Maccabean legacy of die-hard nationalism. In “Nona Maccabeus,” by Gloria Davidas, Kirchheimer, a grandmother in a Sephardic old-age home, holds firm to her Ladino roots, thwarting “the Ashkenazim who controlled her daily activities,” by dressing up and singing a Ladino Chanukah song instead of listening to the hip-hop Chanukah act that the home’s manager thrust upon them. In “Stabbing an Elephant,” by Max Apple, a young rabbi defiantly decides to not modify a pictorial detail of an elephant being stabbed in a Chanukah story book, despite intense pressure from the heavyweights in his community.

Other stories deal with the Chanukah miracle itself. The oil, which burned for eight days instead of just one, was the result of modern technology placed in the Temple through time travel, recounts Harlan Ellison in “Go Toward the Light.” In Eli Weisel’s “A Hanukkah Story,” the miracle is one where a mysterious, anonymous laborer who helps a boy up after he has been beaten by thugs, turns out to be a holy man who studies privately with a mystical rabbi.

Like the little girl in the Myra Goldberg story, other stories deal with the prominence of Chanukah as an element of Jewish American identity. In “The Demon Foiled,” by Anne Roiphe, a Jewish mayor, newly elected to a fractious city, invites the TV cameras into his house when he is lighting the menorah. But the candles do not behave, and they self-extinguish before the mayor has a chance to give his prepared speech. Instead, the mayor says, “This is a promising sign, a menorah in rebellion against taking things for granted … a positive miracle….”

“I believe that we might have caught a sweet spot,” said Charlie Melcher, founder and publisher of Melcher Media, who helped put together the book. “Often a lot of Judaica publishing is not that great looking in terms of its design and artwork [so we wanted to create] something that is attractive and interesting and contemporary but clearly for the Chanukah Jewish market — [which] might be underserved. I hope this book will serve it well.”


Cowboys & Indians

One of the bizarre effects of the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 is better holiday movies. I realize that sounds coarse and facile at the same time, but it’s demonstrably true.

The major Christmas releases in the 2000 holiday season — the year before Sept. 11 — were “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Red Planet,” “Unbreakable,” “Dracula 2000” and “Miss Congeniality.”

Not a serious, political picture in the bunch, though in “Miss Congeniality” Sandra Bullock did play an FBI agent.

Now look at what’s come out this season, amid the standard fluff: First there was “Jarhead,” about an American soldier in the first Persian Gulf War. Next was “Good Night and Good Luck,” about newsman Edward R. Murrow’s confrontation with red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

And then came “Syriana,” and the soon-to-released “Munich.”

Last week I saw those last two, the latest movies to tackle the issues that Sept. 11 forced us to confront: terrorism, oil, Islam, the Middle East and religious fundamentalism.

One thing that stands out is this: Hollywood is making Westerns again, but this time, the Indians are Arab.

I’m not talking about the early Hollywood Indian — a cartoon bad guy or buffoon who spoke pigeon English and was played by a white guy.

I mean the latter-day Indians of film — the more politically correct, primitively honorable “Native Americans.” The ones who resist when the misguided “settlers” prove ignorant of native ways or, worse, when the newcomers become greedy or resort to violence.

With adjustments for nuance and modernity, these themes play out like clockwork in “Syriana.” In this film, the flawed Westerners are the film’s primary movers — whether government officials, CIA spooks or oil execs. They wrestle with the moral dilemmas that our suicidal energy policy raises. They worry about the political and human costs; they second-guess their actions; they call their Arab counterparts on the carpet for their own shortsightedness.

The Arabs, for their part, react: They fight back when the CIA encroaches on their turf; they turn to terror when oil company policies impoverish them; they preach against a West that interferes with their lives.

Of course it’s true that corporations, in tandem with our government and corrupt Arab regimes, have often acted despicably to slake our petroleum thirst. But there is something simplistic and misleading about heaping scorn on oilmen, lawyers, politicians and operatives, but making a murderous Arab (the mullahs, the suicide bombers, the torturer) look perpetually like a victim. We have ideology, desire, goals and misgivings; they react. We are the cowboys out to settle their West; they are the Indians.

I don’t buy it.

Director-writer Stephen Gaghan flays open the ideology and greed that underlay much of our presence in the Mideast, but he never even mentions troubling aspects of Islamic ideology and tribal tradition that were developing long before petrol was king.

The plot of “Syriana” is being hyped as purposefully complex and opaque — but it ignores an ideological strain of Islam that seeks the destruction of opposing values and people as incompatible and threatening to one interpretation of Quranic truth. The Arabs who plan and perpetrate these acts are more often than not homicidal fascists, but in “Syriana” they are all just reacting to Western predation. The cowboys have ideology and depth and complexity; the Indians just suffer and try to defend themselves.

Was Gaghan trying to make, say, 1950’s Western “Broken Arrow,” where Apaches rise up against encroaching whites, using the tableau of oil instead of land? If that’s the case, it’s morally obtuse. The Indians truly were victimized. We invaded their lands, and destroyed them with our guns, germs and steel.

Those who perpetrate terrorism are not innocent — even if they have sometimes been victims. It’s true that Western policies often exacerbate or even incite Islamic fundamentalism. But there is also a strain of Islamic fundamentalist driven by a sick religious ideology, as demented as that of the Crusaders. They are one-starred Sneetches who kill no-star Sneetches in the name of the Great Sneetch. Nazis killed to establish their superiority over non-Nazis. Islamic extremists kill primarily for that reason.

By being hooked on oil we supply them with money. Through asinine policies and actions, we supply them with fertile persuasion for recruitment. But our wrongs and our stupidities don’t negate the responsibility of those who must endure them. Radical Islamists espouse and are prey to an ideology rooted in death and destruction of the Other. For this film not to dramatize — or even recognize — this in some way left me flabbergasted.

Interestingly, “Syriana” is based on the book, “See No Evil” (Three Rivers, 2002) by ex-CIA agent Robert Baer. Baer goes into great detail on how much Mideast terror is the work of Iranian mullahs whose ideological enmity to the West has deep theological roots — a fact that “Syriana,” for all its vaunted complexity, avoids.

To be fair, Gaghan has made a serious, perhaps even courageous, effort to wrestle with contemporary issues. But Arab intransigence and irredentism, Islamic fundamentalism, religious and national fascism, are as much a part of the Middle East muck as Western predations.

Can a single movie fairly dramatize all of this? Sure, and one day they’ll make the cowboys gay.


Soothing Music Memories

When Len Lawrence was sitting shiva for his father 12 years ago, he found himself longing for some Jewish music to help soothe him through that difficult time, but he just couldn’t find the right songs.

Now that Lawrence is general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries, he has remedied the situation for others who might feel the way he did. The result is “Scores of Memory,” a CD of traditional and contemporary compositions produced by Mount Sinai and Craig Taubman.

“What I wanted was music that touches people’s souls and hearts in many different ways in their time of need,” Lawrence said.

The CD includes songs by Taubman, Debbie Friedman and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The latter has special meaning for Rabbi Jerry Cutler of Creative Arts Temple.

“My father was an Orthodox rabbi, so we grew up in a very traditional home where we would hear such music as Carlebach’s all the time,” Cutler recalled. “For someone who has lost someone and their mind is in a state of riot, if they put the Mount Sinai music on, they can start remembering beautiful times from many years ago.”

Lawrence said many people around the country have written to thank him for the CD, which Mount Sinai offers free to both its clients and anyone who requests the music.

In the introduction to “Scores of Memory,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple wrote: “From the depths of our souls, we bring our grief, our joy, our doubts, our hopes, our being in music. From the moment we are born, there is something in us that responds to the cadence and rhythm of the song.”

Cutler views the use of music at a funeral or time of mourning as a very personal decision. “I always say, whatever the heart dictates.”

For more information, visit


How Funny Is Passover?

Passover is not primarily known for being a funny holiday, but don’t tell that to Terry and Patty LaBan. The creators of “Edge City,” who have brought contemporary Jewish American suburban life to the funny pages since 2000, are giving the Ardin family the ultimate seder storyline — four panels at a time.

From April 11-30, the Ardins will confront a situation loosely based on something that happened one Passover to Terry and Patty LaBan, cartoonist and plot/character developer, respectively, when Patty’s mother decided to take a break on hosting a seder.

When responsibility for Passover shifts in the comic strip from Abby’s mother to Abby herself, she frantically copes with the numerous preparation tasks — such as paying her kids, Colin and Carly, $5 each to rid the house of chametz. Meanwhile, husband Len — a technophile — madly researches the Internet for how to lead a seder.

While Jewish comic characters have been around for decades, Terry LaBan said there’s a reason why there aren’t enough in today’s papers for a minyan.

“Syndicates have always wanted strips with characters that the maximum number of people will identify with, so there hasn’t been a lot of incentive to do a strip with characters who are Jewish,” he said. “We didn’t intend at the beginning they’d be explicitly Jewish, but having them celebrate Christmas just because it was the standard thing to do just didn’t seem right…. When we decided that our characters would be Jewish, we realized we had an opportunity to show how Judaism can be a normal — and positive — part of people’s lives.”

And if the feedback from their Jewish readers is any indication, the Ardin family might just start a two-dimensional trend.

“Many people have spoken or written, thanking us for portraying characters … in a way where their Jewishness isn’t always the main point, but just another aspect of their lives,” LaBan said.

To see what happens to the Ardins, visit

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday, January 29

Annie Korzen knows better than you. Or at least that’s what she thinks. In her one-woman show, “Straight From the Mouth,” that’s how she gives it to you. Expect music, “constructive criticism” and lots of laughs from the gal also known as “Seinfeld’s” Doris Klompus.

8 p.m. $15-$20. Steinway Hall at Fields Pianos, 12121 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 471-3979.

Sunday, January 30

This afternoon, take in the “Music of Or Ami,” and give back at the same time. The Calabasas congregation plans to donate a portion of proceeds from ticket sales to help victims of the tsunami disaster. Flutist Toby Caplan-Stonefield plays a program of music by Jewish composers, light classics and jazz with the accompaniment of pianist Paul Switzler and guitarist Larry Giannicchini. Pianist Aaron Meyer is joined by an ensemble of musicians in playing a contemporary mix of jazz, Latin, classical and world music. A wine and cheese reception follows.

4-6 p.m. $12 (per event), $30 (three-part series). 26115 Mureau Road, Calabasas. (818) 880-4880.

Monday, January 31

Rami Perlman has chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps – sort of. This son of Itzhak took to music from an early age, singing with the children’s chorus of the Metropolitan Opera and studying trumpet at the Manhattan School of Music. But now he’s all grown up and singing a different tune: rock ‘n’ roll. His band, Something for Rockets, plays a free show tonight at Spaceland, with a sound that’s closer to the Vines than Wagner.

21+. 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 661-4380.

Tuesday, February 1

Get nostalgic today as the Skirball screens Charles Lamont’s 1942 film, “Almost Married,” as part of its Lifespan Series, “exploring and celebrating the new longevity.” The romantic musical is about a couple that settles on a marriage of convenience only to find that it’s become one of love.

1:30 p.m. Free. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4544.

Wednesday, February 2

The sons and daughters of prostitutes in Calcutta’s red light district are the subjects of Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski’s documentary, “Born Into Brothels,” in theaters this week. Briski, who originally came to Calcutta to photograph the lives of the women, quickly became enchanted by their children. She eventually taught them photography, and in the process, exposed them to life outside the one they knew. The documentary follows their journey and hers.

Opens Jan. 28. Laemmle Sunset 5. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, February 3

A lot of night music, from Chopin to Gershwin, is set to be played on the 1939 World’s Fair replica Steinway “Peace Piano” at the Museum of Tolerance this evening. Pianists Gloria Cheng, Todd Cochran and Norman Krieger donate their talents for the gala, which benefits the musuem’s youth education programs for low-income students. Local composer Nelson Varon’s vocal piece “Shalom, Shalom” will also be performed.

7:30 p.m. $100. Museum of Tolerance, Peltz Theater, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2452.

Friday, February 4

From the “normal” lives of middle class Southern Californians, noted author Merrill Joan Gerber unveils the disquiet that lurks beneath in her latest release, “This Is a Voice From Your Past: New and Selected Stories.” The author of seven novels, including “Anna in the Afterlife,” she signs “This Is a Voice…” at the Huntington Library this afternoon.

2:30 p.m. Huntington Library Overseers’ Room, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. (626) 405-2100.

Sins the Rabbis Left Out

The writers of the machzor were pretty comprehensive in listing the multitude of sins we commit as a community over the course of the year. Some of them — such as foul speech, unscrupulous business affairs, sexual immorality and fraud — are remarkably relevant today. But the authors couldn’t have envisioned some of the temptations offered by contemporary society.

So here are some modern infractions for which you might need to atone:

For the sin of forwarding dumb jokes via e-mail;

And for the sin of forwarding e-mails which insist that you forward them or suffer the consequences.

For the sin of watching shows where people vote other people off the show;

And for the sin of watching shows where mothers admit to stealing their daughters’ boyfriends.

For the sin of cutting people off on the freeway;

And for the sin of flipping off the person who cuts you off on the freeway.

For the sin of talking on your cell phone while driving.

And for the sin of having cell phone conversations in public during which you broadcast graphic details about your love life or medical symptoms.

For the sin of using the Internet at the office to work on personal business.

And for the sin of neglecting to exit the ESPN Web site before your boss walks into your cubicle.

For the sin of buying things you don’t need because there’s a really good sale.

or the sin of paying $3 for a $1.50 cup of coffee.

For the sin of talking during High Holiday services;

And for the sin of rating the rabbi’s sermon as though it were an Olympic sporting event ("I’ll give it a 6.5").

For the sin of leaving a whole package in the cupboard with just one cookie in it (you know who you are).

And for the sin of using family members’ exploits as fodder for newspaper articles (I know who I am).

For all these sins, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. — NSS

Helnwein ‘Epiphany’ Afflicts Comfortable

In contemporary artist Gottfried Helnwein’s painting, “Epiphany I,” an Aryan Madonna-like figure sits holding a naked, uncircumcised new born boy, while some SS officers stand around her, critically sizing up mother and child. The painting is a reproduction of a Nazi propaganda photograph in which Hitler was the central figure; here in the painting, the mother is.

“Epiphany I: Adoration of the Magi,” one of five works by Helnwein currently on exhibit at the Schmeidler-Goetz gallery in West Hollywood, is not the first work of art to explore an uncomfortable subject like the Holocaust.

Depictions of tragedy and violence are often so powerful we may wish to avoid them entirely. Holocaust images and those of other persecutions tend to be rendered manageable by being circumscribed to memorials and museums, places that by their very design prepare us to receive them in hushed tones of historical concern. But confront these images in an unexpected context and one’s reaction may be less predictable, especially if the content is not the vaguely safe images of Nazi horror, but the very symbols and propaganda that fed the rallying call of Hitler’s death machine.

What is in fact the capacity of these symbols to move people? Artists can seem to teeter on the line of propriety in exploring this question. Helnwein, in particular, has been exploring this throughout his career. In one of his early exhibitions, in Germany in 1971, audience reaction encompassed the gamut of emotional reactions, from adulation and Führer worship at the sight of an oversized portrait of Hitler to violent rejection in the form of vandalism to sympathetic watercolor images of deformed and crippled children.

Helnwein was born in Austria in 1948 in a post-WWII culture unwilling to confront its wartime past. Humanist themes pervade Helnwein’s work, but his approach is not one of pandering or niceties. From his earliest moments as an artist, Helnwein has sought to provoke and elicit “unexpected reactions that reveal the innermost held feelings and beliefs [of the viewer],” according to Alexander Borovsky, curator at the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Some of the most powerful images that deal with Nazism and Holocaust themes are by Anselm Kiefer and Helnwein, although, Kiefer’s work differs considerably from Helnwein’s in his concern with the effect of German aggression on the national psyche and the complexities of German cultural heritage. Kiefer is known for evocative and soulful images of barren German landscapes. But Kiefer’s and Helnwein’s works are both informed by the personal experience of growing up in postwar German-speaking countries.

For some artists, like Annette Lemieux, an artist and professor at Harvard University, historical images, even those of the Holocaust, provide a framework for more current concerns: “I would have to say, that I was not thinking about re-contextualizing past ‘found’ images. My ‘found’ images have always been visual substitutes for the present.”

One of Helnwein’s other works is “Selection: Ninth of November Night,” a Kristallnacht commemoration originally shown at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, in 1988. For the large-scale exhibit set in a public plaza opposite the museum, Helnwein photographed contemporary children and whitewashed their faces to appear as Holocaust survivors. Simon Wiesenthal noted, “Helnwein’s most convincing idea [was] to present this … in such an unconventional manner. He made no use of photos of heaped corpses; children’s portraits force the observer to stop and consider this idea.”

Many of the images were slashed across the neck and one was stolen. Rachel Schmeidler, one of the founders of gallery, contacted Helnwein after hearing him speak about the exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance last year.

Since then, Helnwein has exhibited the works damaged, demonstrating the continued need to speak out against the horrors of the Holocaust and persecution everywhere. This commitment has been lauded by Wiesenthal: “….His images are a constant silent appeal against collective denial and repression.”

Some of Helnwein’s images have joined the pantheon of pop culture. Many would instantly recognize images from his “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” series: the painting, “Nighthawks,” his appropriation of Edward Hopper’s 1942 work of the same name, of lonely diner patrons, in which Helnwein substitutes James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Humphrey Bogart as the patrons.

William Burroughs said that the American revolution begins in books and music, and political operatives implement the changes after the fact. To this maybe we can add art. And Helnwein’s art might have the capacity to instigate change by piercing the veil of political correctness to recapture the primitive gesture inherent in art.

The exhibit runs through July 24 at Schmeidler-Goetz/Los Angeles Rectangle Gallery, 9013 1/2 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. The gallery is open 6-9 p.m. (Friday), noon-5 p.m. (Sat. and Sun.) and by appointment. For more information, call (310) 273-0135. To see Helnwin’s art online visit

Trial of King David Sabotages Lessons

I chose not to attend Tarbut’s trial of King David. Billed as “the people against King David,” it promised to be a trial that was “3,000 years in the making.”

I considered going when I read of the legal minds involved in the trial. Justice Sheila Sonenshine is an outstanding jurist; professors Laurie Levenson and Erwin Cherminsky are two first rate lawyers who I would want in my side of the courtroom in a case.

I passed when I read that the organizer, Fountain Valley attorney Alan Thaler, told The Jewish Journal that “it was a remarkable historical parallel between Clinton and Lewinsky.”

There is no need for a trial. It might be good theater, but Jewish tradition has already rendered judgment.

There is no question that King David made a terrible blunder in his involvement with Batsheva thousands of years ago. Jewish tradition records David’s admission of sin, explores in detail if he was guilty of adultery or not.

The Talmud analyzes the case in depth, giving a clear disposition of the case. Technically, he was not legally culpable, since Batsheva received a get — a bill of divorce — before her husband left for war. Still, the Torah chastises King David for his action, which should have been beyond reproach.

We are told of David’s broken heart and profound remorse. His repentance is accepted by God. David asks God to make it known that his repentance is accepted.

The Talmud relates, “During your lifetime I will not make it known that your repentance is accepted, but I will do so in your son Solomon’s lifetime.”

The Divine sign came at the dedication of the Temple that Solomon built in the Jerusalem. All the Jewish people had gathered for this momentous occasion.

Solomon is unable to place the Ark into the Holy of Holies, whose gates remain shut. He prays to God, and there is no response. Finally, he beseeches God that the gates should open in the merit of his father, David.

The gates open, a sign that David is viewed with Divine favor. At that moment, the Talmud recalls “the faces of David’s enemies turn black with humiliation like the bottom of a pot.”

To come some three millennia later and second guess Jewish tradition throws the sanctity and validity of that tradition into doubt. This effort sabotages the important lessons of David: the message of repentance, his piety and scholarship, his gift of prophecy that radiates in the Psalms, a holy and noble Jewish king, whose descendant is promised to be Moshaich.

There is a second pitfall. The frame of reference being used to judge David. Jewish tradition is being replaced by contemporary values of Western culture. Instead of Torah teaching us direction and morality, we are using modern culture to judge Torah. In the process, we are telling the next generation, the ones that Tarbut is mandated to teach, that secular contemporary values trump ancient Jewish ones.

Finally, the Jewish courts are structured fundamentally different than modern American ones. Jewish courts are not adversarial in nature.

While both sides of a case are represented, the most crucial element is to discover the truth and render true justice. Juries are not part of the Jewish system. Cases are judged by qualified judges, as practiced in Israel today.

To be a member of the Sanhedrin, the ancient supreme Jewish court, you had to be immersed in Jewish scholarship, beyond reproach and have knowledge of languages. Judging by the vote of an audience is not Jewish tradition. The tradition is for qualified pious judges to deliberate, seek the truth and use as a guidepost the 3,000 years of Torah, the codes of Jewish law and the millennia of Jewish case law. OJ would never have bamboozled a Jewish court.

King David was one of the greatest Jewish leaders. He established the Jewish monarchy. He was a spiritual giant whose prophetic teachings, such as the Psalms, are a legacy of devoutness that has uplifted the hearts of minds of untold numbers.

Even thousands of years later, one of the most popular Jewish songs is “Dovid Melech Yisroel” (David, King of Israel). Still he was flawed; he sinned, suffered greatly and repented. It is not our task to put him on trial but to learn from his example of piety, repentance and scholarship.

Rabbi David Eliezrie is rabbi of Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen-Chabad and can be reached at

Jewish Folk Art Gets Contemporary Cut

Feathery palm trees, swaying dancers, and butting rams are untraditional focal points in the contemporary Jewish papercuts of artist Deborah Heyman.

In reinterpreting this nearly lost, venerable Jewish folk art tradition, Heyman, of Irvine, finds inspiration and content for her own creations in the personal upheavals and simple pleasures of a modern life.

"They tell my stories," said Heyman, 50, a single mom who worked in a fabric showroom and took up papercutting 13 years ago. Families, tough decisions and dreams are among the subjects depicted symbolically in her work.

One of her designs is the featured cover of the Orange County Jewish Community’s Foundation 2003 annual report, which was published last month. More of her papercuts, including a large-scale tree of life that took a year to complete, is displayed in the administration building of Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School in Irvine, where her husband, Ed, serves as president.

Heyman discovered the tradition of devotional papercuts at a week-long retreat in 1990. Jerry Novorr, of Los Angeles, a retired graphic artist and docent at the Skirball Cultural Center taught the workshop. His teaching evolved from a demonstration he was asked to provide to coincide with a touring papercut exhibit from New York’s Jewish Museum in 1977.

"I had never heard of the media before," said Novorr, now 85, who is self-taught and still fulfills papercutting-commissions for friends.

Almost every culture that uses paper has a papercutting tradition. "The Jewish tradition is based on the written word," said Yehudit Shadur, an authority on the subject who, with her husband, Joseph, is author of "Traditional Jewish Papercuts: An Inner World of Art and Symbol," published in 2002.

"One way to express love of tradition is to beautify the written word," she said from her home in Amhurst, Mass. "Most papercuts include text and understood symbols that are visualizations of abstract ideas."

Papercuts use simple materials and are fashioned using a technique similar to one familiar to children clipping snowflakes from folded paper. Heyman uses acid-free, rag paper for her final works, which are mounted on a heavy, colored board. Many of her designs are asymmetrical and cut using an Exacto knife. First, though, they take shape on paper, drawn and redrawn in pencil. Final designs are worked out on tracing paper.

By comparison, most Jewish ceremonial art is symmetrical in design and often incorporates priestly blessings and Jewish iconography. Some are also painted.

The Holocaust nearly wiped out its practitioners. Where papercutting thrived in Eastern Europe and North Africa during the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, the craft was an integral part of the customs and rituals of Jewish holidays, according to Tal Gozani, a Skirball associate curator. She curated a 2001 exhibit by one of the best-known modern papercutters, Marta Golab, a non-Jewish Polish artist who learned the art form at a Jewish cultural festival in 1989.

"She was drawn to the topic," said Gozani, of the Polish artist, who immersed herself in Jewish text and now creates papercuts with Hebrew script as masterfully as any scribe. "As a Pole, she wanted to bridge that gap, to reach out to the Jewish community, to breathe life into the legacy of Polish Jews."

Traditionally, the most popular papercut is the mizrach, meaning east; it’s a plaque hung on the eastern wall of homes directing Jews to pray toward Jerusalem, Gozani said. Other traditional subjects are decorative marriage contracts, or ketubot; depictions of holiday events, such as a Purim scene; or amulets to protect mother and child.

Heyman’s home displays several of her works, including the couple’s ketubot and a large chamsah, symbolic of the hand of God or divine protection.

"I haven’t made much effort to sell them," said Heyman, who nonetheless has sold smaller pieces for $180 to $300. Like art prints produced in small quantities to support their value, she would make no more than 50 of each design.

At a New Year cardmaking workshop last month at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., Shadur shared her secrets. "It’s a very simple craft. We don’t fear wasting the materials," she said. "It’s a form of creative play."

She is credited with helping reawaken interest in the languishing art form because of her participation 25 years ago in a Haifa exhibit that featured historical and contemporary works.

Her own interest was sparked by after fashioning a papercut for a sukkah in 1966. She was an art instructor at a college in Israel when recruited to help decorate the booth for a party for David Ben-Gurion, the former Israeli prime minister.

Heyman’s work may start from a traditional idea, like the eternal knot, a commonly used Jewish symbol that is central to the piece used by the Community Foundation. But she also incorporates untraditional motifs, such as its corner nautilus shells.

"I’ll have a seed of an idea and play with it and see how it turns out," she said. "I kind of went off in my own direction. None of them are typically traditional."

Neither is the Torah cover she completed last September for Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel, where she met her husband of five years. At the time, Ed was in the final months of a long vigil at the bedside of his first wife, Barbara, who died of brain cancer. The synagogue was as central to the social life of the first couple as it is to the second.

As the second spouse, art helped Heyman carve her own distinct identity.

"That’s another reason art has been important to me," Heyman said. "It gives me my corner."

On the Torah cover, she used a sewing technique called inverse appliqué. Its effect is much like a papercut on cloth. The cover features a white chamsah on a royal blue field that is decorated with spirals, beads and fringes that are representative of prayer shawls.

Textiles are a common thread in Heyman’s life. Growing up sewing, weaving and quilt-making, she later pursued a college degree in textile design and a career in wholesale fabric showrooms. Now, Heyman studies oil painting, which she describes as "an absolute struggle." Her patience for detail in one medium proves a poor virtue in the current one.

"When painting is too difficult then quilting is my escape," she said.

7 Days In Arts


Linda Richman types be warned. The American Cinematheque’s “Can’t Stop the Musicals!! A Celebration of Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and 1980s” presents the plotz-inducing Barbra Streisand Double Feature tonight. From Glamour Babs to Cross-dresser Babs, the back-to-back bonanza showcases two very different Streisands in screenings of “Funny Lady” and “Yentl.”


The Conejo Jewish community continues to sound its presence today with a special cantors concert at Temple Etz Chaim titled “Shema Koleinu: Hear Our Voices.” Cantors Pablo Duek of Temple Etz Chaim, Peter Halpern of Temple Adat Elohim, Kenny Ellis of Temple Beth Haverim, Mike Stein of Temple Aliyah and Marcelo Gindlin (pictured) of the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue join cantorial soloists Sandy Bernstein and Kim Moskowitz in performing an eclectic selection of spiritually uplifting songs.8 p.m. $18-$25 (general), $50-$1,000 (patrons and sponsors). 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-6891.


All around Los Angeles on practically every day of the week, Israeli dancing sessions are offered for a fee that’s cheaper than a movie ticket and a payoff that’s way better than “The Matrix: Reloaded.” Today, head to the 310 for lessons by Tikvah Mason or Michel and Israel Yakove. (Tikvah also teaches in West Hollywood on Wednesdays.) David Dassa brings his expertise to West Los Angeles and Valley Village on Sundays and Wednesdays, respectively; and James Zimmer offers swing-salsa-tango before segueing into Israeli on Tuesdays at the West Valley JCC. Those who don’t know their Yemenite step from their grapevine should show up early, as lessons generally precede open dance.Mason: (310) 278-5383 (Mondays), (323) 876-1717 (Wednesdays). Yakove: (310) 839-2550. Dassa: Zimmer: (310) 284-3638.


Old-schoolers seeking Jewish gangsta flava need look no further than the American Cinematheque tonight. In conjunction with the film’s special edition DVD release on June 10, “Once Upon a Time in America” screens tonight in all its digitally restored, uncut, 229-minute gory glory. For some added bling-bling, the big night also includes in-person appearances by actor James Woods, producer Arnon Milchan, film historian Richard Schickel and production executive Fred Caruso.7 p.m. $6-$9. The Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-3456.


Zócalo. It’s a cultural forum. It’s a public think tank. It’s a chance to mingle with some of the biggest American thinkers. And it’s happening again tonight. Essayist and author Debra Dickerson discusses “The End of Blackness and the Future of African America” at the downtown Central Library. Educate your mind. Free your soul.7 p.m. Free. Mark Taper Auditorium, Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St., downtown. (213) 228-7025.


Three female Middle Eastern artists bring their individual perspectives to the subject of displacement in three movies now on view at UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. Mona Hatoum, originally from Beirut; Shirin Neshat, born in Qazvin, Iran; and Michal Rovner, born in Tel Aviv, each contribute film or video to the exhibition titled “Elsewhere: Negotiating Difference and Distance in Time-Based Art.”Noon-8 p.m. (Thursdays); noon-5 p.m. (Wednesdays, Fridays-Sundays). Runs through July 27. Free. Westwood. (310) 825-4361.


Another faux-weathered, mass-produced Pottery Barn piece? Think outside the mall this weekend. The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium welcomes back the Contemporary Crafts Market this year. On display and for sale will be decorative, functional and wearable artwork by over 250 artists.10 a.m.-6 p.m. June 6-8. $6. 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 285-3655.

Classic ‘Nathan’ Takes Modern Turn

In Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s "Nathan the Wise," now at the Lillian Theater, a bloody war ravages the Middle East. Jerusalem is the flashpoint.

But the setting isn’t modern-day Israel; it’s the Third Crusade in 1192.

If Lessing’s 18th-century German classic feels contemporary, it is because the tension among Jews, Muslims and Christians resonates in today’s political climate, according to producer Alan Friedenthal.

The founder of the fledgling Southern California Jewish Repertory Theatre, he said he chose "Nathan" to kick off his debut season because, "we wanted to make a statement with something topical."

Lessing’s drama, adapted by Richard Sewell, revolves around a virtuous Jewish merchant, his adopted Christian daughter, a fanatical Christian patriarch and a benevolent sultan leader. In the most memorable sequence, the merchant Nathan tells a parable of three rings given to three sons, one of them real, the others clever fakes.

"That serves as a metaphor for the three religions, with no way of knowing which is the one true faith," Sewell told The Journal. "It’s a profoundly modern play because the message is that whatever one’s convictions, one’s first obligation is to one’s humanity. That transcends the transcendence of religion."

In fact, current events have caused the play — seldom performed outside Europe — to enjoy several recent American revivals, including a 2002 run at New York’s Pearl Theater and a public television version.

In the acclaimed Lillian Theater production, perhaps the first ever in Los Angeles, the present-day angle is enhanced by costumes combining historical and contemporary elements. The Sultan’s sister wears a suit by Yves Saint Laurent, for example, while the Knight Templar sports chain mail and gray leather.

"My goal was to show that nothing has really changed in 1,000 years," director Pavel Cerny said. "There’s still a lack of tolerance among the religions, and the terrorism we’re seeing today is a part of that."

If "Nathan the Wise" feels both timely and timeless, it is because Lessing was a man ahead of his time, according to Cerny. The son of a preacher, he surprised his parents with letters proclaiming that religious beliefs should not be blindly inherited from one’s family. His 1747 drama, "The Jew," angered observers by depicting a virtuous Jewish character amid less-than-noble Christian ones. "Nathan the Wise" — modeled after his friend, Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn — elicited even more public criticism.

Almost two centuries later, the piece was banned by Hitler; it was among the first plays staged in Berlin after World War II. "The production took place in a bombed-out theater with many concentration camp survivors present," Cerny said. "It must have been very powerful."

The journey of "Nathan the Wise" to Los Angeles began with Friedenthal, a Superior Court judicial officer who had long dreamed of founding his own Jewish theater. He said he was encouraged to do so by his mentor, the late great Broadway producer Arthur Cantor ("The Tenth Man"), for whom he had served as an attorney on productions such as "Beau Jest."

Friedenthal often visited Cantor in his vast apartment in Manhattan’s famed Dakota. When he mentioned he was founding the Southern California Jewish Repertory Theatre, Cantor made a "significant" contribution toward its debut production, the attorney said.

While Friedenthal’s theater joins several other Jewish companies in Los Angeles, including the West Coast Jewish Theater and Los Angeles Jewish Theater, he hopes to stand out by offering a season of fully staged, Jewish-themed productions in a 99-seat house.

He had already discovered "Nathan the Wise" in a theater anthology when Cerny mentioned it as a possibility to launch the season. The only problem was that existing translations were old-fashioned and lacked the poetry of Lessing’s blank verse.

The issue was solved when Friedenthal read about Sewell’s new adaptation in The New York Times last year; Cerny went on to cast the play with ethnically varied actors "because we wanted to mirror the friendship that develops among the diverse characters in the play."

Audience members have burst into applause at several points during the show, Cerny said.

"They recognize that the plea for brotherhood is as much about today as about the 12th century," he said.

Lillian Theater, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 293-7257.

BJE Selects ‘Leaf’ for Reading Initiative

Assimilation. How Jewish children should best be educated. Oppression against Jews and the Jewish State. Whether faith can provide meaningful answers.

Those topics lead to unexpected plot turns in “As a Driven Leaf,” a historical novel selected by Orange County’s Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) for “To Read as One,” its first communitywide reading initiative, which began last month.

Written by Milton Steinberg, the book is based on a historical character, a renegade rabbi who lived during the Roman conquest of Judea and was excommunicated. The novel provides a context both historical and cultural for many dilemmas confronting contemporary Jews, said Howard Mirowitz, of Newport Beach, the BJE’s treasurer.

“It makes us realize where our own reactions are coming from,” said Mirowitz, who with his wife, Ellen, co-chaired a group that organized “Driven Leaf”-themed events. “To Read as One” aimed to reach a segment of the Jewish population that is unaffiliated, Mirowitz said.

“If nothing else, they read a book that’s really worth reading,” he added.

The age-old conflict between contemporary standards and
tradition that confront the book’s characters will be discussed by Rabbi Claudio
Kaiser-Bleuth in a final “To Read as One” event, May 4, 10:30 a.m. at Tustin’s
Congregation B’nai Israel. A study guide for the book is posted online at

Spiritual Sounds

If — by chance — you start flipping through Christian radio
stations and you come across some Hebrew songs, the person singing them is most
likely Sam Glaser, a Los Angeles-based Orthodox musician whose spiritual music
is traversing religious boundaries. “I have no idea how the stations heard
about me,” Glaser said. “But whenever I have concerts, I have [Christians]
coming up to me and saying things like, ‘The Lord has blessed you.'”

Glaser’s music is considered contemporary spiritual. He
started out as a rock ‘n’ roller in the ’80s, touring nightclubs in Southern
California, but, in 1991, Glaser started keeping Shabbat, and his music
changed accordingly. It didn’t lose its up-tempo rhythm or its pop
sensibilities, he said, but it started reflecting his growing religious
awareness. “The more I learn and the more I grow in my Yiddishkayt, it
naturally gets expressed in my music,” he said. “Judaism gives me endless

As a Jewish musician who writes and performs his own
material, Glaser found that his talents are now in demand all over America. To
date, he has recorded 11 Jewish CDs, each a top seller in the Jewish market.
Glaser hopes his latest album, “The Bridge,”  will be a bridge between secular
and religious Jews. “The whole idea is getting along with our fellow Jews,
having interdenominational communication, having people deal with each other
with kindness and understanding,” Glaser said. “The unity is crucial to our

Glaser regularly goes on 50-city tours, a schedule that he
finds both exhausting and wonderful. “It is a crazy way to earn a living,” he
said. “I sometimes shake my head and wonder ‘what am I doing here?’ — but the feeling
of performing for smiling, singing people, moving them toward a more spiritual
place in their lives is about as satisfying as anything that I have ever done,
and it outweighs the tsurus of security checks at airports.”

On Feb. 9, Glaser will perform a benefit concert with
the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. The proceeds
from the concert will go to The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance. For tickets
call 310-478-9311; or visit For more information on
Sam Glaser, log on to


Wendy Wasserstein to Give a Little Peek

Fertility therapy, Jewish identity, pressure to marry,
single parenting. All are themes that flow through both the personal life and
creative work of playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who won a Pulitzer Prize and
Tony in 1998 for “The Heidi Chronicles.”

In a rare peek behind the curtains on Broadway, Wasserstein
will share some scenes out of her own theater experience at the Newport Beach
Public Library on Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. The $36 cost per person includes a
complimentary copy of Wasserstein’s latest book, “Shiksa Goddess (Or How I
Spent My Forties),” essays chronicling challenges facing contemporary women in

A more intimate dinner with Wasserstein for patrons of the
Orange County Jewish Community Scholar Program will precede the library event.
It will take place in the dining area of Corona del Mar’s Heath Food Emporium
and will be an opportunity to question Wasserstein directly, said Arie Katz,
founder of the Orange County Community Scholar Program, which organized the

Wasserstein’s first book of essays in 10 years is the result
of a “to do” list composed of items left over from when she turned 30. The list
included perennial resolutions: lose weight, exercise, read more, improve
female friendships, improve male friendships and a holdover from a second-grade
to do list: become a better citizen. The more recent additions were: move, fall
in love, decide about a baby.

Each quest and midlife obsession is annotated with
Wasserstein’s well-known gift for prose. Reviewers called her observations humorous
and disarming in their honesty.

“Wendy Wasserstein reveals in inimitably witty fashion the
hard work that underpins her glamorous playwright life — and charts hilariously
her tussles with personal trainers, directors, philistine congressmen and, of
course, her mother…. A remarkable volume of essays, with much wisdom and some
moral outrage detectable in a rollercoaster of theatrical thrills and dietary
spills,” said Flora Fraser, excerpted at the Borzoi Reader, an online
publication of the book’s publisher, Alfred K. Knopf.

At least 200 people are expected at the library, having
already purchased tickets for her previously scheduled appearance last month.
Wasserstein, who was unavailable for an interview, postponed because of
illness. Should demand outstrip the library’s capacity, the venue may be
changed, Katz said.

Within the theater community, Wasserstein is known as a
mentor to other writers and for using her stature in institutions and in
government for arts advocacy.

“Her presence on Broadway gave her a platform that she used
to benefit others more than herself,” said Jerry E. Patch, who years ago
directed a college production of Wasserstein’s first play about her roommates
at Mount Holyoke College, “Uncommon Women and Others.” Patch serves as South
Coast Repertory Theater’s dramaturg.

Her earliest work won accolades for capturing the impact of
the women’s liberation movement on the middle class. “When change happens, it’s
sometimes difficult to chronicle,” Patch said. “Wendy writes plays that are
really insightful and quietly revolutionary. She makes that kind of change

A native of Brooklyn, Wasserstein graduated from Mount
Holyoke and the Yale School of Drama. She wrote a string of successful,
award-winning plays, including “Uncommon Women,” “The Sisters Rosensweig,” “An
American Daughter” and her most recent, “Old Money.”

In an offstage version of life imitating art, Wasserstein is
taking a cue from her famous heroine, Heidi, who became a single parent. At 48,
Wasserstein gave birth to her first child, Lucy Jane, in September 1999.

Patch as well as others suggest that Wasserstein’s work
speaks for a generation of first-wave feminists, who assented to the dogma that
family and career were mutually exclusive. Personally, Wasserstein rejects such

Just listen to her answering machine. A husky voice that
signs off is joined by the squeaky soprano of a child’s voice. They slowly
chant the ABCs in unison.

To purchase tickets or more information, call (949)

Sing a New Song

Craig Taubman remembers a time not too long ago when he and other popular Jewish musicians were branded as destroyers of Jewish culture.

“Years ago there was incredible tension. You can’t ignore it,” Taubman told The Journal from his Studio City home and office. “There were inflammatory, not nice things said about a lot of contemporary writers. It was said that so-and-so or such-and-such had single-handedly not only destroyed Jewish music, but was destroying Jewish culture and Jewish prayer.”

That antagonism, it seems, is on the way out, just as more and more of Taubman’s music, along with the works of Debbie Friedman and other songwriters, becomes a more formalized part of services.

Aside from collaborating with cantors at Sinai Temple and Adat Ari El to develop new Shabbat services, Taubman this year is entering one of the strongest holdouts for traditional cantorial music: The main sanctuary on the High Holy Days.

Together with Cantor Joseph Gole at Sinai Temple in Westwood, Taubman has created an arrangement that combines a chorus of Psalms with trumpets and dramatically placed organ chords, interwoven with the Shofar blasts, for what Taubman hopes will be an inspirational and participatory shofar blowing service.

“The text says be stirred to life, it doesn’t say sit quietly and passively, it says be moved. And hopefully they’ll be moved,” Taubman says. “But at the same time, we’re not totally taking it out with rock music and guitars and other things that will be more focused on the setting of the music, rather than the text and the moment.”

Achieving that balance of the familiar and the innovative, of the traditional and the contemporary, is one of the greatest challenges of cantors and musicians today, as many observers believe we are witnessing the solidification of a uniquely American mode of prayer.

It is a mode that diminishes the performance/ audience aspect of prayer and emphasizes participation with accessible words and singable melodies. It is energetic and melodic and can cover the gamut of emotions in an effort to bring about spiritual connection. And it is influenced not only by the long historical chain of cantorial traditions, but by the great cantorial composers of the 20th century, the song leaders groomed at summer camp, American folk rock and the Chassidic melodies of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

While no one is claiming the advent of a great revolution on the American Jewish music scene, it seems that after 25 to 30 years of development, we are at a discernible point in an evolutionary process where American Jewish liturgical music is coming into its own.

“It’s a very natural kind of evolution. For the people who are involved in trying to change things, it is very challenging and also exciting,” says Cantor Ira Bigeleisen of Adat Ari El in North Hollywood. “Eventually, American Jewry will grow up and find its own voice, just as German Jewry grew up and found its own voice. It happens with every community after a couple hundred years, where it gets established enough and develops its style.”

The success of the emerging style is hard to deny, and cantors are meeting the challenge with a healthy hesitancy, working to assure that the centuries-old traditions do not get lost in the wave of creativity and artistic freedom. With the right melding of old and new, Bigeleisen believes the 21st century American contribution to the cantorate can be long lasting.

“My opinion is that we’re having a resurgence of what I call liturgical poetry,” says Bigeleisen, pointing out other centuries in Jewish history where prayer compositions proliferated.

“This is an American style of liturgical poetry, so instead of being in Aramaic, the common language at that time, now we have poetry in Hebrew and in English, adapting to the musical style that is common here. It’s a way of integrating and modernizing the service while still maintaining a traditional structure. And I think this is really positive.”

One reason Bigeleisen and others are so enthusiastic is that the new style is attracting unprecedented hundreds to services.

Friday Night Live at Sinai Temple and One Shabbat Morning at Adat Ari El are nationally acclaimed illustrations of the fusion of popular music with Jewish prayer.

Taubman, Bigeleisen and Rabbi Moshe Rothblum set out to structure One Shabbat Morning, the Conservative synagogue’s monthly service, to engage congregants through interactive Torah discussions, an air of intimacy, and music that is contemporary but based on traditional Shabbat nusach. (Nusach, musical modes based on melodic formulas of chanted prayer particular to a time of the year, time of day and specific sections of the service, is among the oldest layers of extant Jewish liturgical music.)

Taubman worked with Bigeleisen and other cantors including Alberto Mizrachi, a renowned Sephardic cantor from Chicago, to shore up his knowledge of nusach.

Together, they came out with a service that attracts as many as 1,000 people, of all ages and levels of affiliation. They even snagged the hard-to-reach teenagers.

Taubman is convinced the success is due to the newfound cooperation, where the parties — rabbi, cantor, musician — have taken joint ownership of the process.

“The likelihood of a song of mine becoming part of the tradition a hundred years from now is highly unlikely. But if I can make one contribution that will possibly be invaluable, it is getting rabbis and cantors and lay people and musicians such as myself to sit at the table and say, ‘OK, instead of creating this stuff independently, how can we work together toward creating a liturgy that speaks to people?'” Taubman says.

What they have created so far does speak to people.

“I think people want to be engaged,” says Ron Wolfson, director of the University of Judaism’s Whizin Center for the Jewish Future and cofounder of Synagogue 2000, an interdenominational project. “The question for the rabbi and the cantor and the lay leadership is, how are we going to create a service that engages people in prayer, in study and community?”

Part of what makes Taubman’s and Friedman’s music so accessible is that it combines Hebrew and English, a must for a Jewish laity that has a diminishing knowledge base.

“It seems that we in the Conservative and Reform world are confronted with a generation that wants us to create a service they can somehow relate to, although they come to it without a basic ability to experience it in an authentic Jewish way,” says Cantor Joseph Gole at Sinai Temple.

Thus, more wordless melodies have been added, and some congregations, such as Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, have increased the availability of transliterated texts and started prayer education classes.

“There are lots of ways to bring people in so they don’t feel alienated, without dumbing down the service,” says Cantor Evan Kent of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, who is also the newly appointed director of the cantorial program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. “There is a healthy balance to making service accessible, but not making it ridiculously easy so regulars feel insulted.”

Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom, who has helped to guide the evolution of a more participatory service at Temple Israel of Hollywood for 26 years, believes that people want to take ownership of their prayers.

“I think people are looking for a more personal experience in worship. They want to be moved and they want to be touched, and they want to do it — they don’t just want to have the clergy do it for them,” she says. “I think this is linked to the change in the concept of God that people are comfortable with. People are more comfortable with an imminent God, with a God that is close to them and touching there lives, and they are less comfortable with a transcendent God who is controlling things from on high and judging. I think they want that closeness and intimacy to be felt in the music, with songs that will touch the heart more directly and immediately.”

That desire for intimacy arose within a generation whose Jewish experiences and musical tastes were nourished largely in summer camp or youth groups, and largely on the musical styles of Taubman and Friedman.

Today, that generation is in a position to institute their musical and theological predilections in a formal way.

“The synagogue presidents and the rabbis and the cantors grew up at camp with me — we all went through that experience,” says Taubman. “We are experiencing the effects of the ’60s revolution decades later in the context of our prayer and our synagogue environment.”

According to Mark Kligman, an ethnomusic-ologist at HUC-JIR in New York, the change is also the product of a generational shift.

“The American Jews of the ’70s tried to define and assert themselves, and they did so by saying they did not want to sound like their parents’ generation. They didn’t want their cantors wailing and crying and emoting as they did in earlier generations,” Kligman says. “Those changes have been felt most significantly since the mid-’70s, and certainly those issues were in the fore during the ’80s and became more institutionalized in the ’90s.”

Some in the synagogue music business express concern that the innovations don’t overwhelm the quality of the prayers.

“Unless there is somebody maintaining a certain level of standards, the heritage will be endangered,” says Sam Glaser, composer and performer who leads services at the Happy Minyan and Young Israel of Century City. “We want to give kids synagogue memories, but we also want them to have the option of showing up in a synagogue in Romania or Mexico City and being able to daven with the nusach, and not to have an alien tune because the Debbie Friedman tune is the only one they ever learned.”

That is a challenge cantorial schools are taking seriously. Kent says that a significant amount of each class and music workshop will be dedicated to melding tradition with contemporary music when HUC’s expanded cantorial program opens its doors in spring 2002.

The school will open as a preparatory program for students waiting to enter the cantorate, and Kent says Los Angeles’ Reform seminary hopes to have a fully investing program in the near future. “One of the most important things in training students is teaching them to evaluate criteria for what is good,” Kent says.

Kent notes that today’s cantorial students are being trained by cantors who are not only themselves American trained, but whose teachers were also American trained. As the link to the European tradition grows more abstract, the American tradition has more room to flourish.

“We are really creating a Nusach America, which has to reflect everything that we know as Americans,” Kent says.

Cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who heads the Academy for Jewish Religion’s cantorial school, says students must have a firm grounding in tradition before they can innovate.

“I think the new cantorate is being taught to make the amcha [people] one with the prayers. The text is priority and belief in God is priority, and make them the center of your focus,” Lam says.

Lam also points out that changes in the tradition of change and absorption of outside influence in the cantorate is a well-documented part of Jewish musical history.

To illustrate his point, Lam sings the second half of “Aleinu,” beginning with “Shehu Noteh Shamayim” (He who plants the heavens). He then launches into a rendition of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

The tunes are nearly identical. It is a vivid illustration that Jewish music and the music of the surrounding culture have always existed in intricate interplay.

Most of the nusach is undocumented in origin, but dates far back in Jewish history, as does cantillation of the biblical texts. In contrast, many of the High Holy Day melodies we hear today were written in the last 200 years in Central and Eastern Europe, when the post-Enlightenment cantorate experienced an age of prolific artistry, influenced by the musical culture surrounding it. Strains of classical influence can be heard in many traditional melodies.

Kligman, the ethnomusicologist from New York, says that while comparisons of cultural influence can certainly be made with today’s musical resurgence, the analogy must be nuanced.

“Today our society in general has moved away from classical music … Everything needs to be user- friendly and needs to be very appealing and functionable,” Kligman says. So while composers such as Salomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski, cantorial giants who lived in Central Europe in the 19th century, may have sought aesthetic and artistic excellence in their compositions, today’s composers have a different goal.

“Debbie Friedman’s reference is not classical music, she is not writing to people’s intellectual center. Her music is about communicating to God, to help make prayers understood in a folk music idiom,” Kligman says.

Perhaps it is the cantorate’s malleable nature that has left it so open to innovation.

“When someone asks me, ‘Is this traditional?’ I say, ‘Whose tradition?'” Kent says. “I think in a multicultural Jewish city like Los Angeles, we have to be very cognizant of the fact that what is your tradition is not necessarily someone else’s.”

That is especially true when Kent looks out at his Westside congregation and sees non-Jews sitting with their Jewish partners, and sees a good number of congregants who are Israeli or Persian.

“The Eastern European tradition means nothing to them,” he says.

In Temple Isaiah’s High Holy Day services, which take place at the Century Plaza, Kent includes in his services Yiddish songs, Moroccan tunes, a fair amount of English, silent meditations and wordless melodies.

While in most synagogues the High Holy Day services remain largely unchanged, many cantors and rabbis are slowly introducing new melodies.

“Especially on the High Holy Days, people have real expectation that they will hear the same pieces,” Bigeleisen says. “I don’t change more than one or two pieces a year.”

Lam says he will begin the service with a niggun, to get people more in the mood to participate, and will add some contemporary music to the Torah procession service. Rosenbloom at Temple Israel will do the same thing.

She believes that the reluctance to change the High Holy Day service, while related to nostalgia, also goes back to people’s perception of God.

“Much more than on Shabbat, we are talking about a royal concept of God, a queenly or kingly concept of God, and the music and the majesty of the music reflects the theology that is behind the prayers,” Rosenbloom says.

Temple Israel, like many other large synagogues, offers several alternative services, including one that is less embellished than the main sanctuary.

At Sinai Temple for the past few years, Craig Taubman has joined forces with Rabbi Sherre Zwelling Hirsch to create an alternative High Holy Day service that attracts about 1,000 worshipers. Like the new Shabbat services, this one aims for intimacy, more interactive Torah study, and contemporary, participatory music accompanied by a band.

“People come and they can’t believe it. They have these expectations that during the High Holy Days you’re supposed to be bored and sit through it and endure and be hungry. People are transformed….There is excitement and energy,” Hirsch says.

Even more remarkable, she says, is that people come back on regular Shabbats and other holidays.

“They are no longer once-a-year Jews,” she says.

Taubman says it’s an important lesson for other synagogues to absorb.

“Congregations get 5,000 people coming on the High Holy Days, and then they don’t come back for 50 weeks,” Taubman says. “Something tells me that anybody in marketing would say here is a golden opportunity not to do the same old same old, try something new, and see if they might actually come back.”

Welcome Home

When her first liturgical tune popped into Debbie Friedman’s head almost 30 years ago, she had no clue that she would become the queen of contemporary American Jewish music.

And when three little Conservative synagogues on the Westside decided to band together for a fundraiser, they had no clue they’d be able to get the queen of contemporary American Jewish music to appear in concert for them.

But since 1971, Friedman’s music has captured the hearts of thousands of American Jews, and on Jan. 13 she will play the Wadsworth Theater in a concert to benefit Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester, and Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

The concert brings Friedman back to Southern California, where she was based for a number of years before moving to New York in 1995. She’ll play old and new favorites, delighting audiences as she has since her first recording, “Sing Unto God,” was released in 1972.

Peter, Paul & Mary top Friedman’s list of musical influences from the ’60s and early ’70s, which also include Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Melissa Manchester. She taught herself how to play guitar at 16 by sounding out and practicing riffs from the trio’s songs, to the extent that when she and Peter Yarrow finally appeared on stage together, “it was like we’d played together forever.”

Born the daughter of a kosher butcher in Utica, N.Y., Friedman, who will turn 50 in February, grew up in St. Paul, Minn., primarily in Reform circles. As a teenager, she began to chafe against the worship style of her family’s temple.

“One day, I was sitting in my synagogue, and the rabbi was speaking, and the choir was singing, and I realized the service had passed and I hadn’t uttered a word,” Friedman told The Journal.

She was already working as a songleader at Reform camps and synagogues when her first original melody came to her on a bus. The thought of writing lyrics intimidated her, so she gave it the English words to the “V’ahavta” as they appeared in the old Union Prayer Book: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart…”

Friedman brought the new song to a retreat for the Pennsylvania Federation of Temple Youth. “I taught the tune to a bunch of PAFTYites, and they put their arms around each other and began to sway,” she said. “I realized that they were embracing their own tradition.”

She began to write other tunes, settings of Jewish liturgy and verses from the Bible and rabbinic teachings, and introduced them at Reform summer camps and retreats across the country. Often combining Hebrew and English, her songs are easy to learn and bring an immediacy and a participatory style to worship that people often complain is lacking in traditional services.

“She is clearly at the forefront of Jewish music,” said Alan Eder, whose band, Alan Eder and Friends, has issued reggae albums of Passover and Chanukah music and who calls Friedman “the premier songstress of the Jewish world.”

Her songs have been “a major thing for Judaism as well as for Jewish music itself,” Eder said. “Judaism needs good music, contemporary music, music that comes from the heart, music that makes you move, and Debbie provides that.”

Craig Taubman, whose “Friday Night Live” music has galvanized Shabbat worshipers at venues such as Sinai Temple, credits Friedman with shifting the worship focus from rabbi, cantor and choir to congregants.
“The impact she’s had on Jewish liturgy is undeniable,” Taubman said. “Whereas she might have done it through the back door, introducing her songs at summer camps and retreats, those people are leaders in the movement now, and the prayer experience they bring to the synagogue is what speaks to congregations today.”

“She was the first person who ever called me a musician and I believed it,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, who has written several often-performed liturgical pieces. “For all of us who are involved in the effort to create an authentic, American Jewish music, she’s been our catalyst.”

A number of Friedman’s songs have been closely identified with various holidays, lifecycle events and moments on the Jewish calendar. An early piece, “L’chi Lach,” is popular at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs; “Miriam’s Song,” celebrating the women at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, is often sung at community seders and by women’s Rosh Chodesh groups; “Not By Might, Not By Power” has become a Chanukah favorite, and Friedman’s setting of the first three havdalah blessings ending Shabbat is standard at many temples. And thousands of Jewish children have learned the Hebrew alphabet through her “Alef-Bet Song.”
Her music has also been an integral element in the growing popularity of Jewish healing services, and one of her most popular songs today is “Mi Shebeirach,” a communal prayer for healing.

Friedman knows all too well the needs of people who are dealing with health problems. In 1988, she was laid out with a neurological disorder and an adrenal problem after taking a combination of drugs prescribed for an illness. It took her years to come back to full strength, and she had recurring problems even after she got back on her feet.

Her road to recovery culminated in one of her most powerful recordings, 1997’s “Renewal of Spirit,” which includes “Mi Shebeirach” and a number of other pieces on the theme of bodily and spiritual health and healing.

Her most recent CD, “It’s You,” takes a different stylistic path from her other albums, although, as in all her recordings, all the songs are Jewish-themed. The CD was put together by the producer for pop vocal group Manhattan Transfer, and it features elements of that ensemble’s sound: layered backup vocals, synthesizer, a big band. While some listeners think the disc was overproduced, others insist the power of the songs and the feeling behind them outweigh any excesses.

Friedman herself wasn’t comfortable with the “wall of sound” effect. “I’m not looking for something that’s all flowery and dressed up,” she said. “It’s a departure — and I don’t want to do it again like that. Just me and the band.”

And that’s where the focus will be in January: a woman and her guitar.

Friedman is a tireless performer who tours year-round to venues large and small, from synagogues to Carnegie Hall to huge conventions. That’s been her life for decades, though she did have a stint in the mid-1980s as cantorial soloist for Congregation Shir Chadash in the Valley (which later merged with another temple to become Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills).

The congregational job (“my first and my last,” she said) didn’t work out, because, she said, she wasn’t suited to the life of a congregational cantor.

“I don’t know how to do politics,” she said. “I’m not a fighter, and I think politics and religion don’t mesh well.”

Representatives from the three synagogues that will sponsor Friedman’s Jan. 13 concert — she has another date at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center the following evening — came together almost a year ago to explore the possibility of pooling their resources for joint projects and settled on the idea of a fundraiser.
They were spurred on by Rabbi Marv Labinger, then director of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Pacific Southwest Region. Labinger suffered a stroke during the spring but has recovered sufficiently to attend the concert and will be honored that evening.

The planning committee members didn’t think they’d be able to land a headliner of Friedman’s stature. “Initially, I thought we were going to start small,” said Jack Davis, B’nai Tikvah’s vice president for ways and means.

However, Davis said, his temple’s outgoing president, Fred Hadlock-Piltz, and its incoming president, Tony Schaffer, “kind of thought a little bit bigger than the rest of us” and suggested contacting Friedman’s management.

“The fact that we can get Debbie Friedman for three small synagogues is a real coup,” said Sharon Krischer, Kehillat Ma’arav’s president.

Plans for the concert went smoothly. “It’s been a fun experience,” Krischer said. “Everybody is getting along; there’s no politics involved, no territorial behavior.”

“We divvied up the various responsibilities early on, and everybody held up their end,” Davis agreed. The concert is on its way to selling out, and the synagogues have already made back their expenses.

Although Friedman’s music has made its strongest impact in the Reform movement, the three Conservative shuls sponsoring the concert use her tunes regularly. Rabbi Michael Beals of B’nai Tikvah includes her “Mi Shebeirach” as part of the healing prayer during the Torah service on Shabbat morning.

“Everybody likes it,” Beals said. “The rabbi emeritus sort of raises his eyebrows, but I love it, and the congregation really responds to it.” Cantor Keith Miller of Kehillat Ma’arav, who calls Friedman’s music “nice stuff, very accessible,” also has incorporated some of the songs into his synagogue’s worship.

Although Friedman’s songs are not used every week at Mishkon Tephilo, the temple has sung her “Havdalah” for some years. Mishkon member Sue Kaplan said she thought the communal experience of the concert will inspire the synagogue “to incorporate not just her beautiful melodies and prayers into our programs but encourage us as a community and individually to explore the wealth and beauty of the Jewish music scene today.”

Friedman’s style of music, Beals said, helps him attract new worshipers to his shul. “I’m trying to reach out to people and get them through the door,” he said. “This music is really touching them.”

And Friedman is thrilled to be part of that process, the process she didn’t know she was beginning back in 1971. “I didn’t know any of this would happen,” she said. “I knew I wanted the world to be different, and that’s what motivated me. … I’m pleased to know that people who might not have been able to connect to Judaism have been able to connect through music. That’s all you can hope for.”

Debbie Friedman will perform at the Wadsworth Theater (on the grounds of the Veterans Administration in West Los Angeles), Sat., Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25-$100, available without service fee through Tele-Charge, (800) 233-3123. For more information about the Jan. 14 concert in Pasadena, call Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center at (626) 798-1161.